Today, Sky Tavern is a little hill that is mostly ignored by those speeding over Mt. Rose Highway to Tahoe’s larger resorts. But in the post–World War II era, Sky Tavern was the premier spot to ski.
“It was the place to go because of Reno, and Reno was the place to go,” says Bill Henderson, who now runs the Sky Tavern Junior Ski Program.
In 1939, Wayne Poulsen (of Squaw Valley fame) and his friend Ed Health installed a small rope tow on the hill. The land was then purchased by Robinson Neeman, who hired longtime Reno contractor Keston Ramsey to build a two-section rope tow. In 1945, Ramsey bought the land—about 800 acres—from Neeman, who was in trouble with a Las Vegas mob. Ramsey began building a 20-room hotel, complete with coffee shop and bar, at the beginning of September; it was finished by December 15. “The material was pretty hard to get a hold of, so we had to scrounge around and there wasn’t too much available, as it was right after the war,” Ramsey said in a 1983 oral history conducted by the University of Nevada, Reno’s Edith S. Swift.
Yet, the resort opened to an excited public that paid $1 to ski the rope tows and $1.50 for the T-bar and rope tows. The first year, there was no electricity; the resort operated on a generator and the ski lifts on gasoline motors. There was no grooming equipment. “Everything had to be done by hand,” Ramsey said. “We’d have to round up a bunch of skiers and the ski patrol and take them up the T-bar and let them sideslip down the hill in order to pack the slope. We usually started out with a limited area during the day where we could ski, and then during the day, as more area got skied out, we could expand and ski more of the slopes.”
In the mid-1940s, Sky Tavern was the only open local resort (Sugar Bowl, the region’s first ski resort, closed for years because of the war), and attracted a celebrity clientele, to include actors such as Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth and Ingrid Bergman. Bill Harrah had a small gambling operation at the resort. Joe DiMaggio was snowed in for a few days. National radio broadcaster Lowell Thomas conducted his broadcasts over the resort’s telephone.
The ski business was not an easy one. During the winter of 1951–52, Sky Tavern was snowed in for six weeks after receiving 20 feet of powder. First aid was a brake-less toboggan set up with splints and bandages. There were no ambulances.
Eventually, Squaw Valley opened, and then Alpine Meadows and Heavenly. In 1954, two chairlifts were opened on Slide Mountain, what would eventually become part of Mt. Rose Ski Resort. Ramsey, who died in 2010 at the age of 101, sold Sky Tavern in 1959.
“Sky Tavern became less and less useful as a ski area,” says Henderson. “Where are you going to ski—the big place or the little place?”
The celebrities may be gone but the resort was not forgotten: Its Junior Ski Program, established in 1948 to help children get on the snow, continues today.